According to a new study, where a woman is in her menstrual cycle influences how men talk to her. Scientists claim these changes may be part of an effort to impress her.
Writing in PLoS ONE, Jacqueline M. Coyle and Michael P. Kaschak say they recruited 123 male undergrads, and paired them up with 5 undergrad women who weren't taking birth control. The women described a picture to the men; the men were supposed to describe it back. The study authors repeated the experiment at various points in the ladies' monthly cycles. Result: "the likelihood of men choosing the same syntactic structure as the women was inversely related to the women's level of fertility: higher levels of fertility were associated with lower levels of linguistic matching." That is, the more fertile the women were, the less the guys seemed to talk like them. In a separate experiment, women showed no such changes in response to their own fertility. Coyle and Kaschak explain their findings thus:
[M]en may respond to attractive women, or to situations in which they are thinking about mating goals and relationships, by producing non-conforming or creative behavior. Rosenberg and Tunney's results demonstrate that such considerations may extend to language use. These data suggest that men may not align their linguistic behavior with fertile women as a means of displaying their fitness as a mate. Thus, increases in fertility will lead to a decrease in linguistic alignment.
So do men talk in non-lady-matching ways in an effort (maybe a subconscious one) to look cool and get laid? It's possible — but this study can't really prove it. The experiment didn't address why the dudes got less matchy-matchy when a lady was ovulating. It's also possible (as Coyle and Kaschak admit) that there was something weird about the study condition that made guys act the way they did — perhaps in the, uh, wild, fertility actually makes their speech patterns sync up. The study authors point out, too, that there are many ways of syncing: "It may be the case that men in our study diverged from fertile women on sentence structure to accomplish certain goals (e.g., showing off their creativity or non-conformity to attract a mate) while aligning with them on other levels (e.g., rate of speech or vocal pitch) to accomplish other goals (e.g., affiliation)." So it's way too early to assume that guys are trying to impress women by talking differently when they're most fertile. That said, I'm on board with Coyle and Kaschak's final point:
For decades, social and cognitive approaches to language have had very little interaction [...]. Our demonstration that a well-studied psycholinguistic phenomenon (structural priming) can be affected by social factors, combined with recent work on social aspects of language use, suggest that it may be profitable for researchers in both camps to pursue work at the intersection of cognitive and social approaches to language. It is our hope that findings such as these will spur interest in bridging these long-standing traditions of language research.
Language is deeply social and situational, and it's worth studying the way we change how we talk depending on who we're talking to — or whether the person we're talking to is currently releasing an egg. I'm not confident such research is going to Explain All Male-Female Interaction, as evo-psych proponents often claim to do. But it might do something more interesting: shed light on how our bodies and our social situations influence how we speak.
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